2015: A Space Odyssey

Academic Libraries are amidst a sea of change and challenges. Open Access, new publishing models, self-publishing models, research data management, local systems moving to the cloud, big data, competition from Google, mobile apps, therapy dogs , linked data, restructures; a mix of opportunities and ideas through which the Library is striving to support students, staff, research and the community as best we possibly can using the resources available. But for all we might think we’ve found the Next Big Thing, there is one thing which still rides high in every survey, consultancy or conversation in the queue for coffee:


I need a desk. We need a study room. I can’t find a computer. A chair and a desk.

“…it can be difficult to find an available computer at peak times and there is also over demand for group study rooms and more informal group work spaces…”

“More space in the Learning Commons, seriously there is never a free seat in there to work.”

Source: Library customers’ experiences and perceptions report at The University of Manchester Library (January 2014)

Alan Gilbert Learning Commons

We opened the Alan Gilbert Learning Commons in October 2012 and one might think it would have reduced the demand for space at the Main Library. No such luck. Especially during the exam periods both buildings are chock full of students. The first thing we do with Exam Extra is open up more rooms and flood the spaces with additional tables and chairs. Could we keep on creating new spaces like the Learning Commons? I’d suggest, much like the adage “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”, so the numbers of students would expand so as to fill the space available. Plus it would get quite expensive quite quickly.

Undergraduate visits per day May 2015

What can we do to solve the space issue?

What have we already done? First off we put it to the guys who are infinitely more creative than we can be. In May 2013 student Jade Brodie won the Eureka! Library Innovation Challenge. Jade’s issue was never being able to find a study space or, more frustratingly, finding a space which someone had left all their bits on but vacated to attend a lecture or meet friends or go shopping. Her solution was bookable study spaces. An idea which won the competition, was developed and became Book a space, now piloting in the Main Library. You can book a desk in advance and view the availability from anywhere in the world.

Book a space availability

As well as increasing the numbers of study spaces in the Main Library, during the January and June exam periods 2015 we attempted to direct students to the areas with available spaces more intelligently. Based on the whiteboard, marker pen and walkie-talkie system the Customer Services team had employed in the Summer 2014 exams period where roving Library staff called in availability from around the building (“Breaker! Breaker! We’ve got 3 spaces available on Blue 2! Over!”). Now we had a live webpage showing the space availability around the Library.

Main Library space availability

But you still needed roving staff manually updating the figures in the backend system using an iPad. It’s expensive to have Library staff roving the floors and using time they could be helping customers in more valuable ways.

What are other Universities doing to enable better use of space?

Birckbeck, University of London found the perception of space usage differed from the reality. Whilst students felt there were never enough available study spaces at peak times, the evidence showed that capacity only reached 75-80% occupancy. How to bridge the gap between the perception and the reality? Birckbeck opted for OccupEye.

Essentially an occupancy detecting unit on the underside of each desk relaying the data back to a central system which can then indicate currently availability.

The University of Stirling bring together their entry gate stats, PC occupancy and study space availability to give the Entrytron 4000. An infographical overview of space availability displayed to customers on a digital display as they enter the building.

The University of Cambridge have begun prototyping the SpaceFinder app aiming to “connect their users to the right spaces”:

The SpaceFinder concept, currently in an early prototyping stage, addresses the problem of finding the right type of space in which to work by connecting people with places based on bespoke criteria. Students who use it would be able read reviews of various spaces written by their peers and filter by the criteria that is important to them.

Source: University of Cambridge Futurelib blog

It’s an idea I will follow with interest as it looks less about managing discrete study slots but more about using amalgamated qualitative data by the people who actually use the Library spaces. Which links to taking a more anthropological approach to Libraries and spaces.

The J. Murrey Atkins Library at UNC Charlotte are fortunate to have ethnographer Donna Lanclos on the books. The research Donna is involved with makes for fascinating reading, producing wonderful layered heatmaps depicting different types of space usage based on the observations of the researcher.

Atkins Library space usage

Image: Donna Lanclos via the Anthropologist in the Stacks blog

So rather than drawing too many conclusions on space usage from gate stats, you objectively observe and question what people are doing in a space, which may then point you to the root of why there are X many people in particular areas of the Library.

Springer’s final thoughts

The whole topic of space and human interaction is one Libraries are taking increasingly seriously. And one that can no longer be confined to either physical or digital offerings. The recent User Experience in libraries conference (UX Lib) covers both, and looks to have given more of an emphasis to ethnographers and anthropologists.

The relationship between Libraries, space and people is always going to be challenging. It’s different to providing lecture theatres and classrooms for a fixed number of people. The Library aims to be a friendly face to all the disciplines, stretching it’s resources to cater for the many. And it’s not just undergraduates we should provide for. The NMC Horizon Report 2014 touches on the provision of multidisciplinary collaborative research spaces as one of the longer term challenges Libraries face.

I feel there’s a tension between some of the well meaning gatekeeper technology that sits between student and space. Do you lose some of the serendipitous happenings if you have to think ahead to when and where you want to study? Or is it good practice for the time management and organisation skills you need in the world of work? Technology wise there’s a wealth of possibilities on the horizon, the Internet Of Things, Smart Buildings, augmented reality could all have a part to play. But I think the winning solutions need to be pervasive yet subtle, uniting people and space without being too Big Brother-esque.

For us at the University of Manchester Library it will be interesting to see how the Main Library Redevelopment Project deals with these challenges.

More information

Ethnography for impact: a new way of exploring user experience in libraries – http://www.slideshare.net/AndyPriestner1/ethnography-for-impact-a-new-way-of-exploring-user-experience-in-libraries Andy Priestner

User Experience in Libraries conference: http://uxlib.org

Hit by the UXLibs freight train: https://libreaction.wordpress.com/2015/03/22/hit-by-the-uxlibs-freight-train/

Journal of Library User Experience: http://weaveux.org/